iHeart's Battle With Bondholders Reaches Pivotal Point As It Tries to Avert Bankruptcy

By Soma Biswas Features Dow Jones Newswires

A nearly two-year long battle between iHeartMedia Inc. and a bondholder group led by Franklin Resources Inc. is coming to a head in the wake of the company's proposal of a sweetened offer.

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A resolution to the standoff could allow iHeart to avoid bankruptcy.

In its battle to win over bondholders who hold the key to its fate, iHeart Communications has signed up a group of funds led by Eaton Vance Investment Management, Symphony Asset Management and OppenheimerFunds to convince holders -- especially Franklin -- that it is better to take the new deal than push the company into bankruptcy, according to people familiar with the matter.

IHeart is one of the last of several companies taken over in the private-equity megadeals of a decade ago that is still grappling with debt it took on in its 2006 leveraged buyout by Thomas H. Lee Partners and Bain Capital. The target companies in other big buyouts from that era that subsequently soured filed for bankruptcy long ago. These include Caesars Entertainment Corp. and Energy Future Holdings Corp., both of which are still making their way through chapter 11.

For months, iHeart had circulated an offer that hands over as much as 49% of the equity in both iHeart and its valuable Clear Channel Outdoor Holdings billboard unit to bondholders if a substantial group of them agree to extend maturities and take haircuts, or markdowns, on their debt. In that proposal, private equity owners Thomas H. Lee and Bain would hold on to a 51% stake. The proposal garnered little interest, and the holdout group, of which Franklin has the biggest slice of iHeart debt, has argued that they are entitled to more equity in both companies, according to the people familiar with the matter.

Earlier this week, the company disclosed details of talks with another group of bondholders led by Eaton Vance, Symphony and OppenheimerFunds over the new deal. In its revised proposal, iHeart is offering bondholders a number of sweeteners, chief among them an additional $500 million in debt backed by 51% of the shares in iHeart and in Clear Channel, according to public filings. The new slug of debt will effectively delay Thomas H. Lee's and Bain's ability to monetize their shares in the company until the debt is paid off, according to a person familiar with the matter.

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It is yet to be seen if iHeart can entice enough bondholders to go along with the deal to pull it off. Even with the support of the private-equity owners, the Eaton Vance group would have to win over holders of a substantial amount of debt to prevail.

The holdout group owns more than $6 billion in iHeart's $15.8 billion in debt, while the Eaton Vance group holds about $1 billion, according to public filings. In addition, Thomas H. Lee and Bain have amassed $1.6 billion in the company's debt, according to public filings.

The new proposal, like the former one, pushes out by two years the maturity of a big chunk of iHeart's debt, and bondholders must take a haircut on their debt.

Write to Soma Biswas at soma.biswas@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

July 19, 2017 19:44 ET (23:44 GMT)